Washington - Tensions are re-emerging between Jewish organizations and some mainline Protestant churches in the wake of a renewed drive for churches to divest from companies doing business with Israel.
The United Methodist Church opened discussions last Friday on a resolution calling for divestment from Caterpillar, the tractor manufacturer, because the company supplies Israel with bulldozers used in building the separation barrier and in demolishing Palestinian homes. The divestment resolution comes only months after the publication of a church-sponsored report referring to the creation of the State of Israel as the “original sin.”
Relations with the Presbyterian Church (USA) are also strained, following remarks by church officials criticizing Israel because of the Gaza closure. A recent study by an affiliate of the Presbyterian Church called on American Jews to “get a life” instead of focusing on defending Israeli policies.
“This reflects a very disturbing trend in these churches,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “These developments are a result of work of several very wicked forces that play in the church.”
The divestment campaign, thought by many in the Jewish community to be dormant, is still active among mainline Protestant churches and is re-emerging as a main issue on the agenda of Jewish groups. Attempts to block the divestment drive, which began four years ago, have proved only partially successful. Interreligious dialogue efforts and public pressure managed to mute some churchwide calls for divestment, but other initiatives are still gaining support.
The Methodist meeting, held on January 25 in Fort Worth, Texas, was an initial orientation meeting for delegation heads who will lead their groups at the church’s quadrennial conference in April. Delegation leaders were presented with speakers both supportive and opposed to the draft divestment resolution, which calls for removing all Methodist pension fund holdings from Caterpillar.
“The United Methodist Church holds $141 million of pension funds in companies that sustain the occupation,” said Susan Hoder, a member of the church’s Interfaith Peace Initiative. “This has to stop. We have to cut our ties to the occupation.”
Hoder, who strongly favors passage of divestment measures, went on to claim that American taxpayer dollars are used to fund Israeli military. “A lot of this money goes into the pockets of Israeli military leaders and politicians who get rich while the population of Israel suffers,” she said.
With 11 million members, The United Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. The upcoming April general conference, the church’s main forum for making policy decisions, will first discuss the divestment resolution in a subcommittee. Afterward, the panel’s recommendations will be put to a general vote to make them official policy.
A spokesman for the United Methodist Church did not return calls from the Forward seeking comments on the divestment drive.
Arrangers of the pre-conference meeting last Friday in Fort Worth allowed a representative of the organized Jewish community to speak on the issue. Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs, told the Methodist delegates that the Jewish community was concerned about the resolution. “I told them that while they may think it is not anti-Israel and not anti-Jewish, for us it feels anti-Israel and feels anti-Jewish,” Greenebaum told the Forward after the meeting.
At the same time, Greenebaum warned the Jewish community against overreacting to anti-Israel sentiments in the church. Protestant churches, he said, “care very deeply about their relations with the Jewish community.”
What prompted Jewish activists to take action was not only the renewed divestment drive but also a report from the women’s division of the Methodist church, which addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 225-page report, compiled by the Rev. Stephen Goldstein, attempts to outline the historical and current contours of the conflict, but according to Felson, the report amounts to “the most egregious thing that has crossed my desk that was not put out by an overt hate group.”
Among the statements in the report that irked Jewish community activists are a reference to the founding of the State of Israel as “the original sin,” a passage calling Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion an “extremist” and a passage defining Israeli actions as acts of “terror.” Discussing the impact of the Holocaust on Israeli society, the Methodist report claims it has been the cause for “hysteria” and “paranoiac sense” among Israelis.
“Are we not called to testify when oppressors use their identity as the oppressed with stories of sixty years ago but through some failure of perception cannot see what transpires now in the shadow of the Holocaust?” the report goes on to ask.
After letting four months pass without a formal response, last week four Jewish women’s groups sent a letter to heads of the Methodist church, calling the report “inflammatory, inaccurate, and polemical.” Hadassah and women’s groups affiliated with Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism and United Jewish Communities signed the letter.
Another expected step by Jewish organizations is the launching of a new Web site that will call for a “return to civility” and condemn anti-Israeli voices among Protestant churches.
The Presbyterian Church, the first to come up with resolutions calling for divestment, has so far avoided taking action on this issue, but it still supports a line seen by Jewish activists as anti-Israel. In recent weeks, a heated exchange of letters took place between Jewish community leaders and heads of the Presbyterian Church, following the church’s criticism of Israel over the situation in Gaza. In a letter to the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, head of the church’s general assembly, 12 Jewish organizational leaders complained that “the anti-Israel tone of your statement calls into serious question whether the season of mutual understanding we welcomed in July 2006 has yet arrived.”
Kirkpatrick responded with a letter asking the Jewish organizations, “Do you not share our concern that such regular violent responses by Israel, despite their intent to safeguard security, and no matter how carefully conducted to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties, only lead to continued violence in return?”
This exchange came shortly after a presentation of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a group chartered by the Presbyterian Church though not formally speaking for it. In a slideshow presentation calling for “reframing the debate,” the group argued that the “Jewish community in the Diaspora must get a life,” referring to Jewish reactions to Christian groups’ calls for changes in policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.